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Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging (review)

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 83, Number 3, Summer 2010
pp. 695-700 | 10.1353/anq.2010.0003

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Eleana Kim's is a rare book: a remarkable history unfolded before her ethnographic eyes. Namely, the birth and first decade of the global Korean adoptee movement, a movement that she estimates would eventually appeal to some 20 percent of the adult adoptee population in North America and Europe (from 1953-2007 circa 160,000 Koreans were adopted worldwide). While Adopted Territory does include key names, dates, and informants, it is historical developments—transformations of regimes, modes of thinking, and ontologies of self—that taken together, Kim convinces, enabled both a robust social movement and for many adult adoptees a veritable sea of change in their subjectivities and notions of kinship. Kim's ethnography thus answers this question: In a mere decade, how could tens of thousands of adult Korean adoptees (those who came of age from the 1970s to the 1990s) produce a new kinship, namely one among co-Korean adoptees? Importantly, theirs was a kinship that was wrested both from a powerful adoptee paradigm of integration—in which the "orphan" adoptee was ideally fully integrated into the white family and from South Korea's longstanding interest in adoptee's biological connection to the Korean nation—nor are the stakes of the adoptee kinship forged in the movement that was coalescing before Kim's very eyes. This said, the adoptee movement neither rejected outright North American and European adopted families, nor South Korean interest in their lives—indeed, South Korea figured as an important site in the rise of the movement. But there is no question that for those adult adoptees whose lives have in some way been swept up in the movement, adoptee families and South Korea alike are profoundly refigured.

"Adoptee kinship," Kim argues, works as "a form of public intimacy," extending kinship beyond biology and adoption. Further, she argues that this intimacy constitutes a "counterpublic" founded on an understanding of adoptees as ontologically distinctive from others who might appear to share demographic features (e.g., South Koreans or Korean Americans). This said, Kim appreciates this adoptee ontology itself as profoundly cultural, " socially and historically specific responses to common experiences of displacement and dislocation."

Kim's is a multi-sited ethnography that really works: both the historical developments and the movement's nodes are dispersed across South Korea, North America, and Europe. Kim's " roving ethnography," as she dubs it, travels to key moments and sites in the genealogy of the forging of this emergent adoptee kinship. The field work enlivening Adopted Territory is "book-ended" by the first and third "Gathering conferences" (held in 1999 and 2004 respectively) that were critical to the adoptee community becoming "visible to itself." We learn, though, of the fledgling efforts that pre-dated the first Gathering—a 1986 event in Sweden (the European hub of Korean adoptees), early 1990s events in Germany and Minneapolis (the US Korean adoptee hub), and of various emergent social formations. It is hard to explain how thrilling Kim's history is: as readers we share the excitement of adoptees who literally for the first time find themselves in a room with people who, in the words of one of her interlocutors, " 'share the same ghosts.'"

Most broadly, the historical conjuncture at play is this: the US' millennial culture of multiculturalism; the birth of South Korea's democratic civil society in the 1990s; and South Korea's aggressive globalization regimes. Multiculturalism would challenge the assimilationist adoptee paradigm, opening up the possibility of new adoptee racial formation and identification as well as new cultures of adoption. South Korean civil society activism made for South Koreans who took deep and often critical interest in South Korea's unflagging history of adoption. South Korea's aggressive globalization regimes elected (some) adoptees as global emissaries who could be mobilized in the national interest. While it is this conjuncture that made for the conditions of possibility of the movement, it is critical that the movement would also bristle with each of these transformed regimes: with new cultures of adoption that sought to take charge of their racial and cultural identifications; with progressive South Korean activists that were inclined to seek ownership of their hardship and loss; and with globalization regimes that...